The Bear King Review | Once Upon a Time Season 5 Episode 9

Maybe helping someone else find their path will help you find yours.


Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Emilie de Ravin, Colin O’Donoghue, Jared S. Gilmore, Rebecca Mader, Sean Maguire, and Robert Carlyle.

Season 5
Episode 9: The Bear King

For once in a two-hour special, the second part, “The Bear King” had very little to do with the first part “Birth”. I, personally, completely forgot this while rewatching and was slightly caught off guard by the abrupt topic change and standalone nature of this instalment, especially following the revelations surrounding Emma and Killian in the previous part. It’s understandable that they would air these two parts in one evening. While the only thing that unites the two parts is Arthur and Zelena searching for Merida’s father’s magical helm that will assure them victory in battle, it would have been disappointing if this was the only Once Upon a Time in a week, especially after “Birth”’s ending.

This episode is notable for having a record low number of series regulars involved in it. Only Ginnifer Goodwin and Rebecca Mader appear in new footage, and most of the episode doesn’t concern them, instead resting the episode predominantly on Amy Manson’s shoulders as Merida, boosted by the reappearance of fan favourites Mulan (Jamie Chung) and Ruby (Meghan Ory). It’s impressive that a new character like Merida is able to helm an episode so successfully, but it mostly succeeds because of the brilliant screen presence that Manson has, as well as being able to reconnect with Mulan and Ruby, who haven’t been on our screens in quite some time.

While these three female leads are capable of holding the audience’s attention on their own, the episode did suffer from not uniting them sooner. It was only until the third act of the episode that the three actually collided, and while we got some satisfying answers about where Ruby has been over the past season and a half, it would have been nice to have spent more time with her in comparison to Merida. Lots of the world building given to Merida was unnecessary, considering how recent “The Bear and the Bow” was and the similar themes that crop up in both.

Indeed, Merida’s story in this episode was fairly similar to “The Bear and the Bow”. Her story is a relatable one, revolving around her self doubt and her lack of confidence that she can successfully be Queen. Sure, that must be an ever present worry, and I can’t say that I’d be particularly good at being in charge, but it was only a few episodes ago now, so it just feels a bit repetitive to have to go through the same concepts yet again.

Mulan’s journey was more compelling. She’s changed since last we saw her, and become more guarded and jaded after not being able to confess her true feelings for Aurora. Through challenging Merida to achieve her best self, as well as meeting a new friend in Ruby, you can see Mulan finding her purpose again and discovering her own identity.

Ruby’s appearance was a complete surprise here – or at least it would have been had it not been spoiled in promo footage for those people who actually watched this live. Meghan Ory last appeared as Ruby in Season 3’s finale, and has been conspicuously absent since. This episode goes some way to explain her departure, including a nice flashback sequence in which we see her depart Storybrooke for the Enchanted Forest in order to reunite with her fellow werewolves. It’s a reasonable enough explanation, if a little out of left field. I can’t recall Ruby ever expressing any particular desire or feeling of other-ness in the brief occasions we’ve actually seen her, and I find it slightly hard to swallow that literally nobody has mentioned the fact that she fled to the Enchanted Forest, not even Granny, or Snow who claimed that she would miss her so much, yet seems in no way affected throughout Season 4.

There were some issues with characterisation in this episode, I felt. Not from Mulan, Merida or Ruby in particular, but from some of the secondary characters. The Witch from Brave I found to be quite unexpected. In the movie she’s a bit of a trickster, but she isn’t especially malicious. Her threats to transform the kingdom unless the helm is returned or unless she gets significant payment seemed bizarre, and I was half expecting her to be a different villain in disguise such was the dramatic departure. Even if she was just trying to prove a point, it appeared a little combative.

I also thought that Merida was uncharacteristically dismissive of magic in a way that I hadn’t previously considered. The way that she brushes off the witch by claiming her father would never stoop so low seemed off putting considering that Merida had planned to use a potion to earn back the kingdom herself. Perhaps it was more that she rejected the notion that her father would have gone down such a route, owing to her putting him on a bit of a pedestal. But, then again, it should have been obvious that her father hadn’t worn the magical helm during his final battle, otherwise he wouldn’t have died during it? It seems a somewhat obvious observation to make, yet Merida doesn’t make the connection at all. Use your brain, girl. It’s that squishy thing under those unruly locks.

I thought that Eleanor was also a far more watered down version of the character than in the film. Sure, Once probably wants to make Merida appear more independent, but Eleanor from the film was the definition of a helicopter parent. There’s no way that she would let Merida take on this entire task by herself, much less let her quit. She’d have been right alongside, trying to solve the problem with her. The way that she just stands by while these events transpire seemed unfaithful to the character.

The way that Mulan and Ruby are used here and passed off on an ongoing adventure was promising. It allows them to crop up again in the future or, if the show completely forgets about the pair again, at least there’s a reason this time, instead of it being a glaring plot omission.

“The Bear King” was entertaining as a standalone adventure, but it comes at an unfortunate point in the season. When the Dark Swan story arc was getting so good, it seems so bizarre to take a meandering tangent to DunBroch, regardless of how enchanting the grouping of Merida, Mulan and Ruby is. It’s understandable why it was placed in a two-hour special instead of presented on its own, so at least nobody wastes an entire week on just this instalment. It also sets up Merida getting heavily involved in Arthur’s downfall now that she knows he was responsible for her father’s death.

You can watch Once Upon a Time Seasons 1 – 7 on Netflix. It is also available on home media and other digital platforms for purchase or rent.

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